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Lewenberg: Raptors wrestle division lead from 76ers

Josh Lewenberg
11/21/2013 1:16:54 AM
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PHILADELPHIA - For the first time since April of 2007 - the year they won the division - the Raptors sit atop the Atlantic.

Of course, this speaks more to the current state of the division - not unlike the only year they won it - than it does to the 5-7 Raptors.

Tim Leiweke doesn't need to map out his parade route just yet and Drake, his global ambassador, can hold off on designing the banner. 

"It's a great position to be in right now, it's a feel-good position but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter until it's the end of the season," said Kyle Lowry, putting things into perspective after an uplifting 108-98 road victory over Philadelphia. 

"It's a great position to build off of [but] we still have 70-something games to go and we have to take it day-by-day, game-by-game."

Despite a mediocre start to the season and the inconsistencies that have plagued them on both ends, the Raptors find themselves in unfamiliar territory, at the top of the mountain looking down. What they can see from there isn't pretty.

For at least three games - their undefeated start to their campaign, including wins over Miami and Chicago - the 76ers were the darlings of the division. Since then they have come back down to earth and are starting to resemble the team many believed would be the worst in the association. They have now dropped four of their last five, showing their age as the youngest team in the NBA in Wednesday's loss to Toronto. Sitting at the bottom of the division are two 3-8 teams from New York expected to reign supreme in the Atlantic this season while a rebuilding Celtics club is sandwiched in the middle.

For now, the title means very little but being a division leader at this juncture in the season serves as a reminder; there are other teams, several of them, that are as lost, if not more lost than the Raptors.

DeMar DeRozan used the word "opportunity" a couple of times after the game. That's exactly what this represents. There is an opportunity in the Atlantic, in the East for them assuming they're interested in it. Assuming they continue to play like they did in Philadelphia on Wednesday, instead of reverting back to the team that dropped consecutive games to Chicago and Portland.

"It means a lot," exclaimed Rudy Gay. "It's a step for us. It's an early step but it's a step. We have to take these baby steps to get to where we want to get and that's ultimately the playoffs. So we've got to take everything we can get right now."

"It's 12 games into the season," cautioned a less enthusiastic Dwane Casey. "There's a lot of work to do. It's a long season, it's going to be a marathon. We're nowhere near where we need to be."

For at least one night they looked a lot closer to that team they need to be. For only the third time all season the ball moved consistently for 48 minutes - or something close to it - and the results, like in the blowout wins over Utah and Memphis, were as you would expect. With a renewed commitment to moving the ball, emphasized all week by Casey, the Raptors benefited from a more balanced scoring attack and easier looks at the rim.

"We need to make sure we put that in a bottle and bring it back every night," Casey said of the team's ball movement. For the Raptors, 24 assists was a season-best and Gay, three nights after being held without a helper in the loss to Portland, recorded a career-high of eight dimes.

"We've got to do it on a consistent basis and not let the ball stick," said DeRozan, who led all scorers with 33 points on an efficient 10-of-19 shooting. "We've got a lot of talented players on this team that can do various things. Rudy showed it tonight that he can do it with his passing ability."

"We're putting each other in a position to be successful and it's working for us," added Lowry, who pitched in with 10 assists of his own.

Burned by three-point shooting on Sunday, Toronto was able to get more efficient looks from long distance as a result of improved movement. The Raptors connected on a season-high 14 three-pointers (on 29 attempts) with three players - DeRozan, Lowry and Terrence Ross - knocking down three triples apiece and a couple - Gay and Steve Novak - chipping in with two.

For at least 48 hours the Raptors can enjoy the division lead, after all they've waited seven seasons to reclaim it, but after that it's back to business.

"We'll take it but it's early," Casey said. "We've got to continue to work."

DeRozan excels from the corners

Coming into camp, DeRozan raved about the work he had put in on his three-point shot during the offseason. 12 games into the season, the fruit of his labour is starting to show. After hitting three of four attempts from beyond the arch Wednesday, DeRozan is now shooting a more than respectable 38 per cent from long distance, which would be a career-high, besting his 28 percent clip from last year.

Most impressive is his production from the corners; the most efficient three-point shot available. DeRozan was three of four from the corners against Philadelphia and is now shooting 10-of-16 from that region on the season.

"Like they say, it's the easiest shot from the three point line," DeRozan said of the corner three. "Analytical, you know, whatever. It's the easiest shot and I just try to get there and knock it down every time I catch it."

Overall, the Raptors' guard is averaging 29.3 points, shooting 51 per cent from the floor over his last four games.

Gay's all-around game

After hoisting 27 shots and being held without an assist in Sunday's loss, Gay made a concerted effort to get his teammates involved early against the 76ers. Gay struggled with his shot - and missed several easy looks around the basket - in the first half, hitting just one of seven field goal attempts but had six rebounds and six assists.

In the third quarter Gay awoke from his offensive slumber, scoring 15 of his 18 points and shooting 5-of-7. He finished with eight rebounds and eight assists.

Breakout from Ross

Ross had one of his better games as a pro on Wednesday, utilizing both his athleticism and outside jumper, even registering a pair of assists. The sophomore was consistently engaged on both ends of the floor in a season-high 17-point, seven-rebound performance off the bench.

"I thought he struggled a little bit in the last game and [I] got his attention a little bit when he didn't play in the second half against Portland," Casey said. "He did his job tonight, came out and played, stayed focused on both ends of the floor."

Up next

The Raptors return to Toronto, where they'll play their next four games, and host the Washington Wizards at the Air Canada Centre Friday.

Catch it on TSN2 and listen live on TSN 1050 Radio beginning at 7:00pm et.

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